Mountain climber, photographer, cinematographer, and painter are just a few of the monikers claimed by Renan Ozturk, who also happens to be a Park City resident. But he’s probably best known as the reluctant star of the 2015 Sundance Audience Award–winning and Academy Award–nominated documentary Meru, a film he shot with professional climber and cinematographer Jimmy Chin under the visionary direction of climbing legend, Conrad Anker. The film chronicles the trio’s attempts in 2008 and 2011 to summit the Himalayas’ Meru Peak.
Here Ozturk talks about his love for adventure, culture, and art and why, when he could live anywhere, he chose Park City.
Park City Magazine: How did you get into filmmaking and what motivates you to keep doing it?
Renan Ozturk: After I finished school, I hit the road and would paint and climb side by side. At a certain point, cameras got small enough and the art wasn’t impacting as many people as I could reach with film, so I started doing that.
PCM: Meru is primarily about Anker’s quest to summit a peak many climbers previously considered unclimbable. But then, just six months before your second Meru summit attempt, you crashed while skiing in the Jackson Hole backcountry, sustaining injuries that ultimately made you a predominant character in the film. How did it feel putting this personal story out there for the world to see?
RO: We obviously didn’t know ahead of time about what would make Meru into what it turned out to be. Going into the second attempt, my job was to not slow down the climb or drop any cameras. In the end I think the film was less about me and more about the overall story of the sacrifice, passion, mentorship, and relationships that go into being an alpinist.
PCM: Meru looks like it was shot by a large crew. Was it really just you, Chin, and Anker out there?
RO: Yes, for the most part. Some of those big, time-lapse shots of us on the second climb were filmed by a second unit shooter. And the night shots and some of the other bigger shots were filmed during post-production by a guy we worked with from New Zealand. He wrapped some of our high-resolution still photos around a Google Earth Map and was able to move cameras around in that environment to create realistic-looking aerial shots that are otherwise impossible at those altitudes.
PCM: What was it like for you to premiere your film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival here in Park City where you now live?
RO: I watched the film for the first time in a while with Jimmy and Conrad at Sundance, and it felt great—the filmmaking process was probably harder than the climb! My wife (Taylor Rees) and I chose to live in Park City because my production company, Camp4 Collective, is based out of Salt Lake. By living here we’re close to the studio and the airport while having great access to the mountains for biking, climbing, and skiing.
PCM: Have you noticed any parallels between filmmaking and climbing mountains?
RO: Filmmaking is similar to climbing in that you need a lot of talented people to come together to make something, it requires trust, and you wear many different hats. In the kind of filmmaking we do, we work together in small teams—shooting, directing, charging batteries, moving solar panels, cooking—whatever needs to get done. That often brings us closer together as a team, which can be a bigger reward than accomplishing the original goal. In 2015, my crew and I traveled through the Burmese jungle for more than 150 miles interacting with people who’d never seen Westerners before. The trip ended up being a grand failure, kind of like that first Meru attempt, yet the adventure was every bit as rewarding as eventually summiting Meru.
PCM: Do your climbing expeditions intentionally include a cultural component?
RO: Absolutely. And we don’t always go for purely physical pursuits. We were recently in Nepal for National Geographic to film a culture that harvests honey from high up on these huge rock walls. We ascended these cliffs on climbing ropes and gear alongside these guys who free solo up handwoven bamboo ropes while getting attacked by millions of giant Himalayan honey bees. Trips like that are incredibly memorable and don’t necessarily revolve around a summit.